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Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

Gotta admit I'm not a big NYR kind of guy.  Not bragging, not complaining, just stating the cold hard facts.

First, I'm not the most goal-driven person.  Second, I don't understand the rationale behind waiting for a couple of weeks to start something.  It's kinda like saying, "Two weeks from now, I'm going to begin eating!"  Why wait?  Grab a sandwich TODAY!!

Third, I've never heard anybody say in September: "Well, I'm in the 9th month of keeping my New Year's resolution to ______."  Seriously.  Isn't it true that about the only time we think of--or hear about NYR is during the December-January brain solstice?  My theory is that when the sun dips to its southernmost point above the horizon, it deprives our brains of the heat needed for clear thinking and  common sense.  By September we've thawed out and are enjoying the nice long siesta between one failed New Year's resolution and the next.

OK, OK, I'm a cynic; you got me.  But I'm actually a fan of "LIFE IMPROVEMENT" which I think is what NYR's are after: heavy people start losing weight; lust addicts take a bat to the computer (a la Fireproof), screaming parents remember it's more about consistent training than momentary compliance, couch potatoes pursue a hobby, and introverts start getting out more. 

Some believers have deep reservoirs of determination and can do this all by merely setting their minds to it.  Others never get beyond good intentions.  Here's something available to both: God's grace.  If there is something that you believe needs improved in your life, ask God for help.  After all, He gives generously (Jas. 1:5), ultimately is our source of ability and achievement (1 Cor. 4:7), and can do more than we could ever dream (Eph. 3:20).  

If there's something that needs improved in your life, don't wait until Tuesday to get started.  Begin to cry out to God today for His grace today and tomorrow to change.  And remember, God loves it when we come to Him weak; that's when His power really gets to shine (2 Cor. 12:9).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Can we stop the next Newtown?

Twenty silent children.  Twenty sets of parents who didn't know the goodbyes they said to their children that morning were the last ones.  Parents who in their wildest nightmares would never have imagined having to identify their bullet-riddled sons and daughters at the local morgue.  Parents, never again able to hold their first and second grade children, teach them, love them, cheer for them, help them.  This is yet another time when God's people turn to pray for strangers.

Parents across the nation were afraid to send their children to school Monday.  Children old enough to get it, worry about the risk their teacher-parents could face on a future day.  An toxic brew of fear and fury affect citizens who have faced this before but don't want to again.

President Obama gave voice to our outrage when he declared, "We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end."  They must?  Of course, they won't.  Bills will be written and voted on--probably including some new gun legislation, and school counselors will create some new initiatives that all school personnel will be trained on.  And we'll congratulate ourselves for our diligent response and determination to fix our problems.

But all the bureaucrats in the world cannot put an end to evil.  It's in our DNA.  I'm a hunter and not a big fan of some new gun control, but let's say we pass some legislation that greatly reduces the likelihood that someone like Adam Lanza could get their hands on guns--or a certain kind of gun.  And let's say that with some new training teachers are able to head off some serious stuff, maybe help some of the outsiders feel more included.

We should rejoice.  Believers should endorse what has real potential to improve--and secure--life for all of us, especially the most vulnerable.  (Which reminds me of abortion but that's another post.) 

It's the confidence in such efforts that's misplaced.  Gun control and teacher awareness--maybe even police in the schools, does nothing with the mind or the heart of an Adam Lanza.  Perhaps Lanza was mentally ill.  Even if he wasn't, invariably this is where a world blind to a human depravity that's universal, goes for explanations.  Mentally ill or not, we do know that he was ill with sin--like us all.  And hope for this, won't be found in Congress.  The law can only imperfectly restrain sin, it can neither end nor cure itBoth are the work of the world's future King.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that the incarnate Son of God lived a perfect life so he could die a death for imperfect people, and has been perfectly raised to life and sits at the Father's right hand interceding for us.  Jesus and His work is where those of us who know Him by faith, place our confidence.  While hopefully helpful, legislation, training, and a host of other "try harders" can never deal with the heart's cancer: sin.  Only Jesus can.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Santa Claus for your children?

This morning I read a disturbing newspaper column.  The columnist is a father who is livid about those who would tell children there is no Santa Claus.  When his first grade teacher did it, he still remembers it as "...a dreadful thing to do!"  So when his 9 year-old asked him if he believes in Santa Claus, he answered, "Of course he exists.  There are so few pieces of real magic left in the world, wouldn't it be a shame to lose this one?"  While he admitted to her that not all of the legends surrounding Santa are true--like him entering houses through chimneys, he lumped him in with the likes of Presidents Washington and Lincoln: some stories told about them are false, but they are still real people.

I have never been able to grasp why it's good parenting to lie to our children.  Why would we then expect those same children to believe other things we say are true?  While I don't see it as spiritually subversive to wrap presents with Santa paper or to have electric reindeers on the lawn, let there be integrity with our children!

The following is an excerpt from Noel Piper's book Treasuring God in our Traditions and contains much good thinking about being Christian parents when it comes to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Over the years, we have chosen not to include Santa Claus in our Christmas stories and decorations. There are several reasons.

First, fairy tales are fun and we enjoy them, but we don't ask our children to believe them.

Second, we want our children to understand God as fully as they're able at whatever age they are.  So we try to avoid anything that would delay or distort that understanding.  It seems to us that celebrating with a mixture of Santa and manger will postpone a child's clear understanding of what the real truth of God is.  It's very difficult for a young child to pick through a marble cake of part-truth and part-imagination to find the crumbs of reality.

Third, we think about how confusing it must be to a straight-thinking, uncritically-minded preschooler because Santa is so much like what we're trying all year to teach our children about God.  Look, for example, at the "attributes" of Santa.
  • He's omniscient—he sees everything you do.
  • He rewards you if you're good.
  • He's omnipresent—at least, he can be everywhere in one night.
  • He gives you good gifts.
  • He's the most famous "old man in the sky" figure.

But at the deeper level that young children haven't reached yet in their understanding, he is not like God at all.
For example, does Santa really care if we're bad or good?  Think of the most awful kid you can remember. Did he or she ever not get gifts from Santa? 

What about Santa's spying and then rewarding you if you're good enough? T hat's not the way God operates.  He gave us his gift—his Son—even though we weren't good at all.  "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).  He gave his gift to us to make us good, not because we had proved ourselves good enough. 

Helping our children understand God as much as they're able at whatever age they are is our primary goal.  But we've also seen some other encouraging effects of not including Santa in our celebration.

First, I think children are glad to realize that their parents, who live with them all year and know all the worst things about them, still show their love at Christmas.  Isn't that more significant than a funny, old, make-believe man who drops in just once a year?

Second, I think most children know their family's usual giving patterns for birthday and special events.  They tend to have an instinct about their family's typical spending levels and abilities.  Knowing that their Christmas gifts come from the people they love, rather than from a bottomless sack, can help diminish the "I-want-this, give-me-that" syndrome.

And finally, when children know that God's generosity is reflected by God's people, it tends to encourage a sense of responsibility about helping make Christmas good for others.

Karsten, for example, worked hard on one gift in 1975.  On that Christmas morning, his daddy stepped around a large, loose-flapped cardboard box to get to his chair at the breakfast table.  "Where's Karsten?" he asked, expecting to see our excited three-year-old raring to leap into the day.  Sitting down, I said, "He'll be here in a minute."

I nudged the box with my toe. From inside the carton, Karsten threw back the flaps and sprang to his full three-foot stature.  "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them . . ."  He had memorized Luke 2:8-20 as a gift for his dad. Karsten knew the real story.

In fact, a few days later, he and I were walking down the hall at the church we attended then.  One of the older ladies leaned down to squeeze his pink, round cheek and asked, "What did Santa bring you?"  Karsten's head jerked quickly toward me, and he whispered loudly, "Doesn't she know?"

Playing volleyball in heaven

I've been a Washington Redskins' fan for almost 40 years.  For the last 20, I keep a paper bag over my head when I cheer, but I cheer nonetheless.  After floundering under 21 field leaders in that time period, we finally have a bona fide quarterback in the person of Robert Griffin III.  Affectionately known as RG III, the Heisman trophy winner out of Baylor can do it all: pass, run, lead.  He has reignited a lethargic team that seemed to have become comfortable with losing.  Even after he was injured yesterday near the end of the game, the fire he's lit under the team burned hot as they tied the Ravens at the end of regulation, then beat them in overtime.  Love it. 

I've never been quite sure how God feels about football, tennis, basketball, hockey--any of these these sports we love.  Some of you know that after the Pequea Valley boy's soccer team won the state quarter-finals, my grandson urged me to pray for their next game.  "Put it on your list, Grandpa!"  I demurred because I'm not convinced who wins and loses an athletic contest is high on God's priority list.

So I was struck by the following blog which contends that there will be athletics in heaven.  Frankly, the argument is biblically and practically compelling.  Click the link and see what you think.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Suffering 101, #3

Pessimists think every new day proves them right.  Days ago I spoke with a young man who hates his job so much that he feels ill when he arrives for work.  People in our congregation can't find jobs.  There have several been bad traffic accidents in the community recently.  My brother-in-law has leukemia.  Parents have a daughter who won't talk to them.  Perpetrators like Sandusky and Geyer prey on children.  As James MacDonald insists, you are either suffering, just come out of suffering, or about to suffer. 

Since Adam and Eve remodeled their perfect Garden of Eden into a little house of horrors, nothing has been the same.  Yes, from sunsets to super bowls, from lovers to children and good health, life still offers much that is smileworthy.  Yet playing between commercials of happiness is a relentless daytime and nighttime lineup of dramas that stalk the planet: wars, illness, grief, drug addictions, tragedies, birth defects, poverty, broken marriages, natural disasters that kill, broken friendships, loneliness, etc.  To which different people react differently.  In previous posts we've discussed two ways suffering people react to their misery: throw in the towel in resignation, or get angry.

Then there are those who get depressed, who descend into a funk of despair.  I'm not talking about clinical depression which neither sufferer nor doctor can pin on circumstances, but an emotional and visceral reaction to life not going as planned.

Depression afflicts 15 million Americans over the age of 18 but that sterile stat fails to encompass the number of people who get "down" when their worlds are coming apart: discouraged, blue, see the glass half empty, doubt that things will ever get better, obsess, worry, withdraw.  It affects job, relationships, even physical health.

Some of these people are your brothers and sisters: blood-bought, justified, heaven-bound saints.  They won't admit it even to those closest, but some are unduly eager for heaven's future because of the escape it promises from this mean old life.  Christians, for whom life's so bleak that prayer is hard or seemingly impossible.  Times when God's promises ring hollow.

OK, some of these people are..., us.  I have this bent, and so do some of you.  We're the type who are quick to catch the elevator to the ground floor when all is not well.  And anyone's who's been at the bottom has heard all the remedial cliches from well-meaning people:

  • Remember, there's always someone else who has it worse than you do
  • Cheer up, it could be worse!  (that person gets annoying!)
  • Things will get better one of these days
  • God has something to teach you
  • There must be sin in your life
  • If you were really in God's will, none of this would be happening
  • Just pray and claim God's promises

Of course there's some truth sunning itself in most of these statements.  Among some grievous errors.  And omissions.  Errors like the miscalculations of Job's friends: "If you're suffering you've sinned."  Of course, every sufferer has sinned.  Isn't that what Jesus died for?  And if it's a truism that suffering follows sin, how about all the times when we sin but nothing bad happens as a result? 

And what if tomorrow things actually get worse?  Pastors cringe when they hear suffering people say they're banking on tomorrow getting better (we'll delve into this reaction more in a future post) knowing there's a good chance things will worsen.  Not just get worse before it gets better, but often it just gets worse and worse and worse.  The sick person dies.  The husband leaves.  Financial problems lead to bankruptcy; the addict goes to prison. 

The most significant thing about such cliches though, is the great omission; something's missing.  It's the same thing that's often missing when we're despairing: a hope resting in Jesus.  Yes, the gospel is heaven's hope for the dying, but it's also today's hope for the living.  A hope neither necessarily resigned to suffering, nor dependent upon an end to suffering for good cheer.  Put another way, because of a believer's relationship to God through Jesus Christ, the summum bonum (highest good) is no longer things "going my way".  In Christ we can appeal to the great Circumstance Changer, but we can also find contentment if in God's sovereign plan life does not improve.  All because of Jesus.

When He explained in John 10:10 that He had come to give abundant life to followers, Jesus did not mean that He had come to make them rich, purge them of all sickness, guarantee them great romances, provide exotic vacations, or give them a boss who is always nice to Christians.  He did not mean puppies would never die, that the transmission would never go out, that friends would never turn on them, or that wives would always be faithful.

What He meant was that we can expect the Good Shepherd to have our best interests at heart as He fashions what comes our way.  Unlike the hired help who's just there for the paycheck and has  little interest in the sheep, the sheep belong to the Good Shepherd.  He's going to take care of them.  Lovingly.  Even in sorrow and disappointment.  When that doesn't appear to be the case, God reminds us how limited is our understanding.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Our disappointments are legitimate ones.  Who wants to lose a job, health, a husband, a child, even freedom?  Losses have real world consequences.  But we can't both stare down at them and look up to God; it's one or the other.  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.  (Psalm 43:5)  When God means most to us, a turn for the worse has no power to kidnap our joy.

Like a healing stream, a good long look at the cross washes the inescapable truth over me that no matter how badly things go, nothing begins to approach the magnitude of my sorry condition before an innocent Savior gladly paid for me in blood.  I was an enemy of God, a child of the darkness, under God's wrath, lost and without hope for this life or the next.  Jesus changed all that.  His work not only changes how I look at things, it changes..., things.  The world or things in it that I cherish may be slipping through my fingers, but I will never, never, never lose my soul--or a place at my Father's table.  I will never ever be abandoned or neglected.  I won't even have my sin thrown in my face.  Ever.  Jesus has taken it all upon his pristine shoulders.

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail  and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Tonight, for the first time in 3 years we'll come face to face with the person who embezzled a large sum from our church over a period of several years.  At our Thanksgiving Eve Celebration she will make some remarks to the gathered church.  With the exception of what some grace-stirred people donated to her restitution fund, she has paid her court-ordered debt to us in full.  That makes it easier for her to face us, but it has nothing to do with our ability or willingness to forgive her.  

Some people compartmentalize sins: eating too much food at tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast, or holding a grudge for years, or vanity, or dodging taxes, are considered mild.  Sins like homosexual acts, adultery, drug dealing, obscene jokes and language, drunkenness or embezzlement, are considered awful.  Some who are "appalled by" the sins in this last category are "amused by" the sins in the first.

There's a gospel flaw in that.  A single "mild" sin makes a person just as guilty in God's sight as a person committing "awful" sins (James 2:10).  Which leaves little room for smugness.  God lumps the lot of us together as just plain sinners.  Proud pastors, tyrannical parents, griping homemakers, and lazy workers are sinners as surely as are the hookers, pimps, meth dealers, drunks..., and thieves.  Since the problem of sin is always the same, so is the solution for everyone: repent and put faith in Jesus' sacrifice.

That her theft hurt the church's ministry for several years is irrelevant.  All sin affects someone or something.  We should not think others' sins more calamitous than ours when we all bear responsibility for what took place at the cross.  On our behalf, the magnitude of what the Roman soldiers did to Jesus is without comparison.  Yet about these men Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing."  If Jesus could advocate for their forgiveness, and if God can forgive us though knowing perfectly our every sin and inclination to sin, how much more can we who have been so richly forgiven, forgive those who sin against us (Col.3:13); no matter what we think of the severity of the sin.  Tonight, we publicly do what we've privately done already: forgive.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Petraeus Scandal: an Opportunity Missed

When General Petraeus resigned last week as head of the CIA for a extramarital affair, America's fighting force lost a role model.  Widely admired inside and out of the military, the four-star won over those from both political parties and was frequently mentioned as a future presidential candidate.  There are few moral no-no's in government service and an official said Sunday that the affair broke no laws.  But those in the clandestine services with closeted skeletons are a national security threat.  A secret affair with his biographer made the general a potential blackmail target for foreign operatives.

When my son was a cadet at West Point he had the privilege of hearing the general speak at his alma mater.  Petraeus was part of the Long Gray Line when he began to court the superintendant's daughter.  The online picture of them on the Plain shows a fresh, corn-silk haired beauty.  They married 38 years ago, and surprise, surprise, both of them aged.  Children and the decades take their toll on every woman's youth and looks (like age + male pattern baldness + donuts do to men).

Paramour Paula Broadwell has described herself as a fitness fanatic and although details about motivation are still sketchy, this much I know: a woman near 60 who's given birth to several children can't compete with a woman in great shape who's 20 years her junior.  Perhaps there were problems in the marriage.  I mean, before all this.  No matter, this is a truism: men instinctively notice attractive women and all his life, a husband will daily see women who are younger and "prettier" than the one he goes home to.  Each one he sees is an opportunity.  No, not that kind.

In another era God stopped answering the prayers of Jewish men because they were tossing their aging wives overboard for younger women.  ...the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant (Malachi 2:14).  "You made a covenant!" God thundered against the straying husbands.  "You promised!"  You promised to love her in sickness and in health, in wealth and poverty, in youth when you couldn't take your eyes off of her, as well as in her aging years when she has wrinkles like you do. "You promised, and I was there when you did."

Because of the promise a man makes to his beloved before God, whenever he sees a woman that captivates him, it's an opportunity to reinforce his heart.  Instead of letting it meander unchecked and entertain "what if?", a Christian man uses the opportunity to Keep [his] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (Prov.4:23).  It's like working out; each time we properly exercise the heart, the muscle gets stronger.   No man can do this on his own, but we who have been born from above, are empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  True, we can still sin, but because Jesus broke its power at the the cross (Rom.6:22), we DO NOT HAVE TO.

What Satan sells married men is a hoax: a different woman will make life better.  I doubt the general has found that to be true.  His wife is "beyond furious" and I can only imagine the reaction of his daughter who was recently married.  Will she trust her new husband?  The director of the CIA lost a job he very much loved.  And his popularity lies in ruins.  Opportunity..., lost.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Electoral Blues for Conservative Christians?

Earlier this morning CNN's religion editor Dan Gilgoff blogged...

For many conservative Christian leaders, it was a nightmare scenario: Barack Obama decisively re-elected.  Same-sex marriage adopted by voters in some states.  Rigorously anti-abortion candidates defeated in conservative red states.  On multiple levels, Tuesday’s election results seemed to mark a dramatic rejection of the Christian right’s agenda, eight years after the movement helped sweep President George W. Bush into a second term and opened the era of state bans on same-sex marriage. 

"Nightmare scenario" is what opponents of conservative (ideologically and theologically) Christians would like to think.  Maybe God thinks: "It's about time."  True, in His revelation He specifically decries same-sex relations, and no sham marriage can make this sin sacred.  Plus, He called out Israel again and again for shedding innocent blood and what blood is more innocent than a developing child ripped from--or executed in, the womb?  And to our newly reelected president who claims to be a Christian--yet is an advocate for these evils, a holy God thunders, Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil... (Is.5:20).

Yet, are we conservative Christians as impassioned about Jesus as about our candidates?  If we are satisfied with no more impact in the community and nation than artificially imposing morals from above at the ballot box, perhaps God will continue watching as this country slides over a moral cliff.  Maybe dire circumstances around us will dislodge us from complacency; to do the hard, one-on-one work from beneath to love people and point them to the Jesus who renews the heart and mind.  From which comes a new bent towards righteousness.  I always vote for candidates who best reflect biblical values and show evidence of being able to lead.  But being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven lays a bigger assignment on us than simply voting and hoping our guy/gal..., wins.  We are after more followers of Jesus, not just more moral people.  

In a nationally publicized sermon on CBS in the mid-1900's, Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse asked what would it look like if Satan took over Philadelphia?  The Presbyterian pastor stunned millions with his answer as recounted by Michael Horton: All of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday . . . where Christ is not preached. 

Believers of the early church had no legal rights to live--let alone vote.  Yet that primitive church flourished with a momentum that would make today's campaign managers green with envy.  Lacking any political power it brought the Roman empire which killed many of its number, to its knees (think, Constantine).  The antidote to Gilgoff's nightmare scenario is not more conservative Republicans, it is more people who turn to Christ in repentance and faith, and follow Jesus.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Love or something like it

During the days Jesus was apprenticing in His father's Nazareth shop, Ovid was writing poetry in Rome.  Among his works was this wise counsel, "If you want to be loved, be lovable."  Instead of just wishing or demanding that others love you, make it easy for them.  But in the New Testament, instead of urging the church community to attract love, authors urge believers to give love--without conditions, without qualification: love each another.  Period.  

...through love, serve one another... (Gal.5:13).  By my count, some 31 times in the NT authors either tell Jesus' followers to love each other, or say it's what's typical of them.  But we're not given a lot of details about how to do that.  There are some like showing hospitality to believers, visiting them in prison, feeding and clothing Christians in need, but nowhere near enough material for even your basic Saturday seminar "10 Awesome Keys to Loving One Another".

Which I guess is why Bible teachers often give practical tips on ways to love "Love is..., love isn't...", tips not found in the Bible.  Thanks to the sermons we end up with a list: do these things, don't do those things.  That's how we know we have loved.  Check.  

Then again, can we boil down love to a checklist that suggests that if we to do 6 things and don't do 5, we've loved?  I still like Kenny Rogers' music (seriously, why's the guy still touring at 74?!).   His husky tenor turned rock, pop and country tunes into hit after hit.  The title cut of a 1978 Billboard smash was "Love or something like it".  Love or something like it's got a hold on me.  What he's got ain't nothin' like love.  The guy in the song is cruising bars trying to pick up woman after woman.  Imitation love.

Which ours can be.  It's flawed, but we don't mean it to be.  It's not corrupted like Kenny's bar hopper, just ill-informed.  Take Van who sometimes offers to take his wife dancing.  He knows how much his buddy Doug's wife loves dancing and so he expects his wife will too.  Somehow the very invitation seems to make her sulky.  What he doesn't get (wasn't he listening or wasn't she saying?) is that his wife feels like she has two left feet and is too embarrassed to dance with others around.  Van meant well, but his expression of love was flawed.  Even though it was an expression someone else would have appreciated, it wasn't right for her.

But since both of them treasure the marriage they work at trying to love better--by understanding how each other wants to be loved.  But it can all be very confusing.  Not so different in the church.  I see people do loving things for others.  Things not always received that way.  How's a person know what to do unless he/she has a sermon for every occasion?  When is a hospital visit love and when is staying away love?  When is offering money love and when isn't it?  When is speaking bluntly love, and when is it meddling?

The subject's so vast that no preacher can preach enough sermons on how to--and how not to, love.  The good news is, we don't have to.  In our church the best teacher is not yours truly, but the Holy Spirit.  Same in your church.  Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another... (1 Thess. 4:9).

 The God who made not only you--but me and every other member of the body of Christ, knows every motley one of us better than we know ourselves.  Knows what will be an expression of genuine love to Jessica or Mark or Danielle or Kent.  And can teach us how to tailor our expressions to individuals.  Go to the teacher who knows best: the Holy Spirit.  ...and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all... 1 Thess. 3:12. 

Like Joseph's robe, authentic love can't be reduced to one or two colors and fabrics.  But the One who inhabits our hearts waits eagerly to whisper to listening ears, "This is how you can show her Christian love; this is how you can show him My love."  Even if not always appreciated by the individual, the Spirit can help us distinguish between love and what is "well, it seemed like a good idea at the time".

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Books

Sorry, "Friday Books" left town for a while.  Today I'm plugging What is the Mission of the Church?  Two pastors (one Presbyterian, one Baptist) wrote a thoughtful book on mission creep, subtitled Making sense of social justice, shalom, and the great commission.  Seriously, if you love Christ's Church you should read this.  Its 266 pages will give you a much greater grasp on the answer and why it matters, than I'll be able to offer in 30-40 minutes this Sunday.

The growing interest many believers have in helping people in need should bring us to our feet in thunderous applause.  For example, as a kindness to their communities and a reflection of Christ, an increasing number of churches mobilize their congregations and spend a Saturday or Sunday doing all sorts of kind and helpful deeds.  Everything from washing windows or repairing porches, to offering motorists cut-rate fuel at local gas stations.  Then there are ongoing need-meeting ministries churches have such as food banks, thrift stores, tutoring, medical clinics, etc.  All of which get rave reviews--even by people with zero interest in faith.  Increasingly even those who couldn't care less about the gospel themselves practice "random acts of kindness" and like when we do too.  In fact, testy voices from blogs, twitter and in newspaper letters to the editors, declare that such niceness and helpfulness is authentic Christianity--unlike brands which arrogantly pray for the souls of people of other religions as if they are spiritually inadequate.

The ingenious phrase "mission creep" was first used about 20 years ago to depict "the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization" (Merriam-Webster).  In other words, an organization starts out with a mission to build cars, only to 20 years later find itself  manufacturing parts for earthmoving equipment or selling leadership seminars.  Mission creep.

Has it happened to the Church?  Have good deeds become the mission, or are these acts of obedience still in their proper place?  Acts that today may lobby either to be the mission exclusively--or be an integral part of it, include helping the poor, promoting justice among all people, and protecting the earth.  And of course, the Great Commission.  Of the many, many good things churches should do, which drives the rest?  The authors believe the church has one mission, which they say is ...not everything we do in Jesus's name, nor everything we do in obedience to Christ.  Mission is the task we are given to fulfill.  It's what Jesus sends us into the world to do (p.29). 

DeYoung & Gilbert methodically work their way through many scriptures but it's the early church portrayed in Acts which they think portrays what today's Church ought to be doing.  And not.  If you are looking for a picture of the early church giving itself to creation care, plans for societal renewal, and strategies to serve the community in Jesus' name, you won't find them in Acts (p.49).  You may not agree with everything, but I doubt that you'll walk away without rethinking some of the soundbites you've heard.  Even sermon soundbites.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Resources on Creation & Evolution

With last Sunday's message I tried to undermine the claim that "(macro)Evolution is a Fact"--especially the theistic variety.  I argued it cannot be squared with the Bible, and in fact its tenets undermine the gospel itself since if there was no first Adam, where does that leave us with the second Adam (Romans 5 & 1 Corinthians 15)?  Here are some additional resources for thinking about science and God's creation.  Browse. 

I don't agree myself with everything on each of these sites (even when I do grasp what they're saying!).  For example, as I indicated Sunday, though I think the earth is young (10,000-12,000 years), it's entirely possible that it's much, much older.  No matter how vociferously some argue the point, the Bible simply doesn't say. 

Some of those below quarrel fiercely with each other about such matters.  When it comes to the fine points of Creation, in my opinion Christians should not go to war with each other over what the Bible's either silent or unclear about. 
  • Creation Ministries International: [young earth]  Organization stacked with both with Ph.D. scientists as well as Bible interpreters.
  • Institute for Creation Research: [young earth]  Of Henry Morris fame.  ICR paints with a one-color brush: the fossils and the earth's layers that secular science builds its arguments on for an very old earth, can be explained by a worldwide flood.  Everything can be explained by a worldwide flood.
  • Reasons to believe: [old earth]  Think-tank of scientists who are also Christians who believe the Bible is all true.  Lots of resources integrating known science with the testimony of Scripture.  They expose the soft underbelly of naturalistic and theistic evolution.  They believe in a "Big Bang" but not quite the conventional/secular one.
  • Answers in Genesis: [young earth]  Ken Ham has a very literal understanding of Genesis with no room for anything like an old earth.
  • Probe Ministries: Designed to help Christians have a thinking faith.
  • Pastor Kevin DeYoung's interview with Discovery Institute's Jay Richards regarding a book he edited, God and Evolution.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How should you vote?

When asked "How should an evangelical Christian decide who to support in this election?" Timothy George, founding dean of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School and chairman of the board of the Colson Center for Worldview, responded this way (abbreviated remarks):
  1. We should be grateful to live in a representative democracy where the right to vote and the rule of law are respected. Vote!
  2. The American republic was founded on a clear distinction between church and state, as the First Amendment shows, but this has never meant the separation of faith from public life. Distinguish!
  3. In the Manhattan Declaration, Chuck Colson, Robert George, and I made a public argument, based on biblical wisdom and the right use of reason, that the three most pressing moral issues of our time are the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death, marriage as a lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman, and religious freedom for all persons. Discern!
  4. There is a difference between Christian discernment and partisan politics. Examine!
Greg Strand, director of theology and credentialing for the Free Church, wisely added a fifth recommendation: 

Regardless of who wins the election in November, the spiritual and moral issues that ought to inform our political acts will remain on the agenda. Pray!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Did you know Jesus had a wife?

At a conference in Rome this week a piece of papyrus the size of a business card was offered as evidence that Jesus may have been married.  Harvard Divinity prof Karen King admits the 33 Coptic (Egyptian) words on the scrap which include Jesus saying "My wife..." (remainder is cut off) to his disciples--followed by him saying she is able to be his disciple, offer nothing like proof.  But Dr. King claims, “Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married.  The Gospel of Jesus’s [sic] Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”

Initial reports say the fragment's a 4th century translation of a 2nd century writing.  Some hope that evidence that Jesus had a wife and/or women in his chosen band of disciples, would overturn Christianity's long-held teachings about women in ministry, and torpedo the Catholic Church's requirement that priests remain unmarried and celibate.  But dubious scholars from Quebec to Egypt are coming out of the woodwork to suggest it's a forgery.  Some observers wonder if this week's announcement was meant to escalate the value--and subsequent selling price, of the piece owned by an anonymous collector.

The Bible nowhere suggests that Jesus had a wife while on earth.  Doesn't say He didn't, it's just that there's no hint of it.  Then again, Jesus does have a wife.  Let me introduce you to His beloved Church; isn't she a beauty?  The collected saints of all time whom He wooed, courted, sacrificed Himself for, sanctified and cleaned" present [her] to Himself without spot or wrinkle...,or blemish" (Eph.5:25-27).  We're the bride.  But the big wedding celebration is yet to come (Rev.19:7).  Unlike the wife's dowry which some cultures demand, Jesus has already paid the price.  Gotta love the Church because Jesus does; He died for her and claimed her as his bride. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Suffering 101 #2

We've all seen people react to suffering by getting angry.  Ok, most of us have been that person.  Know why?  I mean, why people get angry when things don't go their way? 

30 years ago Francis Schaeffer claimed that the premier gods of westerners were personal peace and prosperity.  Everybody knows what prosperity is, but the personal peace he spoke of was a desire to be left alone, unconcerned with anyone or anything else in the world.  It's no different today.

The personal peace he meant was a kind of autonomy/privacy that's oh-so-American.  But scratch it more deeply and buried beneath this everyman idolatry could be the hope--maybe even the expectation that nothing should go wrong for me; my perfect world should not be disturbed.  Which could explain why people get so mad when it is.  Why they go ballistic when their prosperity or peace leave town.  

Sometimes it's due to a big blow.  Like the widow who began screaming and cursing shortly after I said the "Amen" at her husband's funeral.  (She was mad at God and her dead husband.)  Sometimes its a small blow.  I remember as a teenager just going postal when I couldn't get the motorcycle started I'd borrowed from a friend.  Not exactly a tragedy of cosmic proportions but you'd think it was by the library of epithets I hurled at the heavens.

My last post on suffering discussed the person who simply resigns himself/herself to the inevitable disappointments.  Maybe like Eeyore, someone who bleakly expects that's how life's going to be and doesn't do anything about it when it is.  In this post, it's the anger response; the fury, rage, the indignation.  This one, I have much history with.  Maybe you do too.

Angry at whom?  Anger is usually directed at someone: a person at fault, the one to blame.  If his girlfriend dumped him, she's in his crosshairs.  If his boss demoted him, he  is.  If no one's to blame--say, she gets cancer, it's a little trickier.  Who's to blame for a dreaded disease?  With a little investigation maybe you can pin it on a
nearby manufacturer who might have contaminated your well.  Or, the secondhand smoke you inhaled from a spouse.  But what if your search yields no one to blame?  

People still get mad.  At God.  Even those with barely a vague notion of God--or Christians who don't believe God is sovereign to the degree the Bible says, believe instinctively that He's running the show.  If things go badly for them, He's ultimately their Fall Guy.  

The best an atheist/agnostic can do is blame fate--or some other nebulous substitute. But the Christian--or even the God-believer, knows God could have kept her from cancer, could have stopped the divorce, could have snatched her son from the road, could have intervened with her boss, could given her more money, or....

In other words, unless a person can exile his/her suffering to a sector that somehow God isn't in charge of, he/she will eventually blame God.  Here is where humanity's twin beliefs converge even if not admitted out loud: God is in control, and I deserve better than what I'm getting.  Although a veneer of humility or self-denial can camouflage it, anchored to the bedrock of my self-perception is the deeply held belief that that I didn't deserve to lose my job; I don't deserve a flat tire; I don't deserve that kind of treatment by my son.  I don't deserve cancer.  I don't deserve this traffic jam.  I do deserve a child.  I do deserve to be thought well of.  I deserve to earn enough money to live like ______. 

Job suffered like few people have: his wealth was either stolen or destroyed, his 1o children were killed, his wife turned against him, his reputation was in tatters, and his health was ruined.  From Job 3 to Job 31 he repeatedly protested that he did not deserve to be treated like this.  Humanity's twin convictions were firmly anchored: God's in control and did this, but I don't deserve it.  

To which God replied: Will you even put me in the wrong?  Will you condemn me that you may be right (Job 40:8)?  To lash out at God over suffering says God's made a mistake: He's wrong, I'm right.  Yet basic Bible theology teaches us that we are by nature wicked (Rom.3:10, 23), and thus objects of God's wrath (Eph.2:3).  Therefore, all the suffering we experience, is deserved.  Not that a child dies because we told a lie at work.  Rather, that since we are sinners both by nature and by practice, we are not deserving of special treatment that puts us out of reach of suffering.  Indeed, what is not due us are God's blessings: life, health, children, work, friends, peace, security, family, education, respect, abundance, love, and most of all, deliverance from our sins and God's judgment, and the blessing of His favor to us in Christ.  

Anger at suffering can only be moderated by a growing recognition that no, I don't deserve anything but judgment, death and hell.  EVERYTHING else is a bonus.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Glorify God at Work

Tomorrow I'll be preaching on God's plan for man's labor; how we can glorify God on/through our jobs and live out the gospel.  Below are some suggestions from Bob Thune, lead pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, NE.
  • God is glorified when we put our whole selves into our work, with a view toward pleasing God, not men (Col. 3:23-24).
  • God is glorified when we are honest, even when it hurts us or prevents us from getting ahead (Ps. 15, Gen. 39).
  • God is glorified when we honor our superiors and submit to their authority (1 Tim.6:1, Rom.13:7).
  • God is glorified when we treat our work associates with kindness and respect (Lk.6:31, Rom.12:18).
  • God is glorified when we expose fraud or dishonesty or unethical behavior (Eph.5:11-13).
  • God is glorified when we approach our work prayerfully (1 Thess.5:17).
  • God is glorified when we avoid complaining or grumbling, even in less-than-ideal work situations (Phil.2:14-15).
  • God is glorified when we refuse to make work and money our idols (Matt.6:24, Eccl.5:10-12).
  • God is glorified when we plan diligently for the future (Prov.21:5).
  • God is glorified when we live simply and give generously (Prov.22:9; 1 Tim.6:17-19).
  • God is glorified when we trust him to provide today what we need for today (Matt.6:11).
  • God is glorified when we rest from work (Deut.5:13-15; Ps.46:10).

Friday, August 31, 2012

What God can do for those with same-sex attraction

This Sunday I'll be speaking on homosexuality and related topics.  While the number of Americans who admit to being homosexual or bisexual seems to grow all the time, certainly there are still those who hide their desires for fear of the disdain, criticism and rejection they expect should they be honest.

In our churches, there is a comparable fear.  That is, some Christians with homosexual longings are fighting the good fight.  But the storm is fierce and while they desperately wish there could be some believers to stand with them with love, prayers, advice, and friendship, they suspect--probably rightfully so, we'd cut them off and despise them if we knew the truth.  The painful truth is that unless a church revises the Bible's teaching on homosexual behavior, it's not the best place to be honest about same-sex attractions.  It seems to be the one temptation that some Christians want to pretend doesn't exist.  And the one kind of sinner/prospective sinner they don't want to join hands with and help.  God forgive us.

From a distance I've learned how deeply imbedded the homosexual craving must be.  Where is there hope to be had?  Jesus Christ.  No, repentance and faith do not necessarily mean the temptations will flee.  After all, we are in a battle against sin that will last our lifetimes.  But being killed, buried and then raised to life again in Christ, does mean the power is there for victory.  As Christopher Yuan will tell you.